June 19, 2011

Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity

Well, I've recently returned from an Alaskan cruise with my family, which I wish I could blame for not writing more reviews.  But truthfully it's been a combination of laziness and some trepidation in finding something worth writing about some of the most written-about movies ever produced.  Not to mention that, as I said in an earlier post, the history of movies from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind felt like a fairly tidy whole.  To go beyond that is a little like starting again, but this time pushing off into broader, darker, and more tumultuous waters.  Which I imagine is much like what filmmakers of the time felt like as well.

Again, there is little I could say about these mega-classics that hasn't already been said.  So I just want to summarize some of my strongest reactions to each.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Kane never had much emotional impact on me, but of course I am always impressed by Orson Welles' cleverness (as was he).  This is one of those movies where you catch some new little thing each time you see it.  This time, I noticed the cut when Kane's second wife lays ill in bed, her attempted suicide drugs sitting in the foreground (composited into the shot so both foreground and background remain in focus).  This shot cuts to black - or what appears to be black - and then the blackness turns out to be the doctor's bag sitting in front of the camera.  He pulls it away, and we are looking at the same angle as before, of the wife in bed, only the glass and pills are missing.  At first the cut seemed a little awkward, but then I realized the drugs were getting almost literally "scooped away" by the doctor's bag - and so her sickness scooped away by his craft.  Har har - very clever Mr. Welles.

More importantly however, I realized something ironic about some of the staging techniques used throughout the film, which are of course widely considered among the most thoughtful and innovative in history (and they are).  The obvious trend in movies up to this point has been simply learning to escape the conventions of theater.  In the earliest films one can plainly see how the frame is almost used as a mezzanine.  With new editing and close-up techniques, this "theatrical" style was gradually broken down and replaced with a new visual language appropriate for film.  Citizen Kane gets a lot of the credit for that evolution - one could fairly say it taught other directors how to use a camera in much the same way Hendrix taught other rock stars how to use an electric guitar.

So the ironic part is where I realized that much of the "new" stuff Welles is doing are techniques he brought over from his career as a stage director!  The difference between him and the earliest filmmakers is that Welles, first of all, was a very good theatrical director, and, secondly, he understood how to translate his craft from one medium to the other.  On stage, actors might be arranged on risers that use their overall height to direct our eyes.  On camera, this is condensed so that just heads and eye-lines are composed.  On stage, upstage and downstage positions are very important - an effect generally lost on film due to the 2D frame and fear of making actors too small.  However, Welles gets around that by frequently using low camera angles, which exaggerates perspective and thus makes staging relevant again in all three dimensions.  Even Kane's rabid insistence on keeping every layer of a shot in focus can be seen as a way to recreate the theatrical experience - where viewers can focus their eyes wherever they want.  Likewise, compositions are sustained wherever possible, and they evolve fluidly over time, just as they do on stage, with minimal intercutting and virtually no closeups.  Closeups are a purely cinematic convention, and - one might say - a crutch.  A shortcut.  You can't do closeups on the stage, and so a more sophisticated language is necessary.  So, Welles became a great filmmaker precisely because he was not a filmmaker.  He had to learn the hard way, in a world where technological marvels like closeups and montage editing couldn't bail you out.  Old tricks are the best tricks, eh?

There are so many lines and symmetries in this shot it's mesmerizing.  I could stare at it for hours.  An optical FX shot, btw - Kane was filmed separately.  Notice the guy in the back yet?

Casablanca (1942)

I like that Casablanca and Citizen Kane are usually the two films in closest competition for the title of Greatest Movie EVAR.  There's such a great symmetry to it, as they were produced at practically the same time and yet are almost complete opposites.  Kane: bold, raw, intellectual.  Casablanca: commercial, polished, emotional.  The studio system vs. auteur theory.  Some might argue that Kane's complexity and forward-thinking style make it the superior film, but there is value in simplicity (which is not the same thing as simple-mindedness).  Welles' cleverness can sometimes become a distraction, while Casablanca's straight-forward approach keeps the focus squarely on the story and allows a more earnest tone.  They are also communicating on different levels.  Where Kane might present a visual puzzle to tease our brains, Casablanca's craft is more intangible, mostly to be found in the music, the glowing photography, and the pacing of edits (easily the best pacing of any film so far on the list).  The "battle" in the bar between "La Marseillaise" and "Watch on the Rhine" uses all three to create one of the most stirring moments in film history.  Its elegant simplicity belies the skill required to make it - though you'd have to be pretty stone-hearted to be thinking about that while you watch it.

If I have a problem with Casablanca, it's Humphrey Bogart.  I know that sounds sacrilegious, but hear me out.  Bogart's rendition of the hard, cynical Rick we meet at the Café Américain is beyond reproach, no argument there.  But the gravity of his choices at the end of the film depend on selling the strength of Rick's love for Ilsa, and here he is less convincing.  During the Paris flashback he comes across as the same glib character we've known the whole time, if in a considerably better mood.  There is no emotional connection; no sense of vulnerability in her presence.  To be fair, that is as much the fault of the script, which seems to think a little sightseeing and a catchphrase is enough to establish a timeless romance.  These scenes give us little sense of what he sees in Ilsa, except that she looks like Ingrid Bergman (which just might be enough), and even less what she sees in him.  It's all rather transparently calculating, which lessens the impact of his sacrifice at the end.

Fortunately, I never got the impression that the love triangle was the real point of Casablanca anyway - just the hook to sell tickets.  My favorite parts of the movie have always been the early scenes that do such a good job of soaking up the atmosphere and tension of Casablanca, especially the young couple whom Rick bails out at the roulette table (a more effective chink in his cynical armor, for my money, than any of the Ilsa scenes).  That, and Claude Rains, who mercilessly steals the show at every opportunity.  I'm shocked (shocked!) Rains never won an Oscar during his career.  He should have been given a lifetime achievement award with the inscription: "Your winnings, sir."

Perfection in every detail.  And not just the girl (Oh Ingrid- why couldn't you have been about 70 years younger?).  This frame captures the movie's essence: desperate longing and gleaming eye-lights.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Coming right after the previous two films, this one almost seems rather plain in comparison.  I certainly don't connect with it as much, though this is one of those genres that constantly has to one-up itself, so an important landmark like this feels a bit quaint almost 70 years on, through no fault of its own.

Still, I find it to be a somewhat hollow movie.  The murder plot sounds clever on the surface, but doesn't hold a lot of water.  Some of the performances are great, especially Edward G. Robinson (and it's fun to see him as a totally different character than his earlier gangster persona - and he has one more appearance yet to make on our list).  There are a couple excellent moments of "don't look behind the door!" tension, which I very much enjoyed.  But for the most part the film is a lot of posturing.  It's a writer's movie is what it is, by writers who are infatuated with the sound and shape of the words more than their content.  Beyond that, most of it seems to exist - like a lesser M. Night Shymalan picture - for no particular purpose except to set up the final shot.  On the plus side, it's a great shot.

"Try not to look suspicious."

Going forward I'll probably have to double up on a few more reviews to get caught up, but they are coming.  Next up, we round out the '40s with The Best Years of Our Lives.  I guess they haven't been so bad so far...

No comments:

Post a Comment